There are two aspects to doing business -- believing in what you're doing, and verifying that it works for your customers and clients.
To succeed, you need to do both, relentlessly.
When it's only about keeping the faith, you may be worshiping at the altar of hope (or its shady cousin, ego), and you can't trade that credibly. Test your idea before you go down the heavy investment route. Is there a market for it?
Base your trade on demanding proof alone, and you take away the specialness of drawing from a deeper source of inspiration and passion. The specialness is what will allow you to stay the course and weather (some of) the ups and downs of running a business (or even a program).
Being a contribution
Today I had lunch with my printer. You may think we live digitally now and there really isn't a point in still printing stuff.
Aside from a still strong direct response business, you may want to look into required labels, decals, forms, bulletins, and privacy information leaflets as examples of applications on the regulatory side. On the fun side, consider posters and apparel for conferences.
I met Mark a dozen years ago. He was printing stationery -- letterhead, envelopes, business cards, labels -- for a company that hired me to help with marketing and communications. When I started, he came in to introduce himself and offer his services for anything I needed.
He meant it. We started working together just on letterhead reorders. I was impressed by both his knowledge of the printing process, including raw materials and choosing the most appropriate printing methods, as in most cost effective and time saving. I quickly started calling him for other jobs.
As a policy, the company always bid jobs to at least two service providers to make sure we had gotten the best bang for the buck. Other providers started pushing back on providing transparency into their pricing structure for fear they would lose work.
Mark not only provided transparent bids, he also met with us in person regularly to figure out how we could combine jobs creatively, thus saving us a bundle over the whole order.
Where other providers kept sending their lump sum quotes as they had always done, I know Mark put considerable time into helping to re-imagine how we could achieve the same effect under sometimes more compressed timelines and deliver a quality product.
Take it or leave it
I want to make sure it's clear -- other printer reps also had passion for their work and were knowledgeable.
They just didn't have enough of either to get past an additional question about a potential order. Or when we needed to work more creatively to come up with a solution.
When the pressure was applied to me and I needed to make miracles with a smaller budget, I would just see the passion for the work disappear without sufficient proof to convince me that there were no alternatives.
Suggesting a change in scope of work, or looking at achieving the same goal differently was not something they seemed hungry to do.
And there was something else -- when the direct mail job got delayed, there were all kinds of excuses ready for why someone else didn't come through...
Resilience and flexibility do add up
We often talk about resilience in the same sentence with the word leader, because those who posses this quality -- both businesses and individuals -- end up leading, even as they may not have started this way.
Add flexibility in the way you think about what you do and you now have a very powerful combination to do good trade and make better promises.
Because he was flexible in the way he conducted business, and resilient in the face of needing to supply proof in competitive bids, Mark went from just printing letterhead, which we used more and more rarely as a company, to getting purchase orders for our entire printing needs.
During five to seven months in the busy season we would do up to three mailers to thousands in each segment per week. It was crazy busy for us, and for him (we weren't his only customer). Yet, he was always just a phone call away and he would drop in to check job specs in person.
And he saved us a tidy bundle in addition to taking care of things when he said he would. In turn, his account with us grew considerably.
Earning and keeping trust
Soon, we started calling Mark into meetings with other providers for specialized jobs like product labeling so he could work with us and them to make those processes more efficient.
We relied not just on his domain expertise. Time and time again, he demonstrated his word was good, that we could trust him.
We stopped bidding jobs out. He kept winning those bids anyway, and when you get used to a certain level of service, anything less doesn't measure up.
At this point you could start relaxing your standards and getting a bit complacent. The passionate rarely do that. They are constantly and relentlessly pursuing a better trade.
And there's something else.
Mark never tried to bite more than he could chew. If he didn't know something, he would research it and report back. If he couldn't deliver a product of the highest quality, he wouldn't bid on it. In fact, he would even suggest someone who would do a better job.
That's how you keep the trust you've earned.
To this day, whenever someone asks me for the name of a good printer, I refer Mark. Because I know he won't let me down -- directly or indirectly. I am not alone.
When he went out on his own last year founding Outlook Printing Solutions, every one of his customers with one exception followed him.
He got so busy fulfilling requests, that he's getting around to thinking about marketing now -- a year later.
Entrepreneurs know that you reach a critical point where you need to make some decisions on either growing and scaling the business, or staying with a niche, and so on.
Leading from any chair
This is something Ben Zander and I have in common -- we both believe people can lead from any chair. And something else -- that collaboration is very powerful. It creates a waterfall effect of good will and positive context that create the conditions for success.
Then success begets success in a way that touches all involved with a positive vibe. This is where people say -- do something you're passionate about, and the money will come.
How does Mark get most of his business? Through word of mouth.
Hope my story will help you see how it's done.
Zero sum games produce zero in the end. If you want to add multiples of zero to your balance sheet, you need to practice being a contribution.
Keep the faith that doing things right is the right thing to do, and verify that you have indeed done right by your customers.
The floor is yours. There is no ceiling -- glass or otherwise.